Orpheus: The Taste of Ashes - Missions - Mission004

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Dramatis Personae

Protagonists

  • Tom Knox, Haunter
  • Teresa Reilly, Banshee

Supporting Characters

Orpheus

  • Beta crucible, various
  • Kate Dennison, Banshee
  • Annie Harper, Unknown Shade (PLE)
  • Matthew Peterson, non-projector (manager)
  • Alex Pretorius, head of Beta crucible Skinrider
  • Zoë Vitt, Poltergeist
  • Mickey Williams, technician

Other

  • Hyde, Jason (spectre-possessed human)
  • Kathleen Jones, social worker
  • The Reaper, unique/unknown (shadow-class entity)
  • A pack of Lost Boys, (shadow-class entities)


Mission Four: Fear the Reaper

A couple of days after their debrief, Tom and Teresa are called to Matthew’s office for another mission assignment. This is unusual, as investigators are usually allotted a couple of weeks’ “time off” between cases. Zoë is there when they enter, as is Alex Pretorius. Alex is, as usual, projecting. (He spends as much time as he can in the tanks.) Matthew, looking somewhat uncomfortable, says that he understands Pretorius is going to brief them. (Like the rest of management, he is a non-projector, so he can’t see the spook.)

Tom, Teresa and Zoë are being seconded by Beta crucible, under Alex’s direct command. The mission objective is quite simple: to take down the Reaper. Alex notes that the Reaper seems to have a particular interest in Teresa, so he intends to use her as bait. (He actually states this quite bluntly, with his usual display of tact and charm.) As the Reaper turned up after they dispersed a spectre, they may be able to get his attention that way again. Their more detailed objective is to go out and find a spectre, disperse it after letting it see Teresa, and then wait for the Reaper to show up. If he does, they are ordered to make sure they survive long enough for Beta crucible to get there and engage him. If he doesn’t show, they do it again and again until he does. Alex tells them in no uncertain terms that this mission is only over when his objective has been achieved, and not a moment before. Almost as an afterthought, he adds that he has management’s full backing on this. (On the plus side, at least this means that they’ll get paid.) Silence falls for a few moments, as the investigators digest this. Zoë asks why he wants her and Tom along. With a shrug, he says he wants to make sure the Reaper doesn’t just show up, kill Teresa and leave before Beta crucible can get there. That would render this whole exercise pointless, and remove his only means of drawing the Reaper out. (His concern for her welfare is touching. Why, it’s practically group hug time.)

Alex suggests a place to start looking for a spectre: an area where children have been disappearing. It’s apparently been happening for some time, but only really hit the news when a middle-class family was the one targeted. (Previously, the vanished children had all been from poor families.) He doesn’t have any more information for them -- finding a spectre is their job. (This is also somewhat out of the ordinary for an official mission. Usually, non-spook investigators will do the groundwork before the spooks are briefed.) If they need any resources beyond the three of them, they can bring their request to him. Once they’ve found a spectre, they are to call it in. They’ll project and head out there to engage the spectre. They will be accompanied by a mundane -- an Orpheus technician wearing the spook-vision goggles they acquired during the Magnox case. (This is as good an opportunity as any to test-drive them in the field.) One of Beta crucible will Inhabit the technician’s mobile. If and when the Reaper shows up, he will call in the rest of the team. (They’ll be waiting somewhere in the area, with another mundane to take the call.) Tom, Teresa and Zoë are to keep the Reaper occupied until Beta crucible arrive to lay the smack down.

None of the investigators are overly happy with this plan, but Alex isn’t giving them a choice; he’s giving them orders. Zoë starts mouthing off to him, which is probably not the wisest of moves. With an expression that can only be described as malicious, he tells them that there is one other detail that he forgot to mention: when they’ve found a spectre, they are to go into the tanks -- as opposed to simply skimming -- before engaging it. This means that they won’t simply be able to ripcord if things go wrong (or just if and when the Reaper actually appears, like Teresa and Tom did the last time). He says it’s because he wants to make sure that the Reaper sticks around long enough for Beta crucible to engage it (as opposed to leaving when its target ripcords away), but the investigators think that it’s just because he’s a bastard.

It seems that’s about as much of a briefing as the team is going to get. Alex tells them to get on with it and leaves Matthew’s office. After telling Matthew that he’s gone -- that may or may not be an expression of relief that passes over the manager’s face -- they go off to put their heads together so that they come up with a plan of action. After some discussion, they decide to dig up what they can about the area and the disappearing children, and then go out there physically to have a look around. What they do after that will depend on what they find. They do briefly think about requesting the assistance of some of Orpheus’ non-spook investigators, but that would mean going through Alex. None of them are especially keen to have any more contact with the man than they absolutely have to. Besides -- they figure that, between them (and with Tom’s training and contacts), they can manage this part on their own.

Tom gets in touch with some of his cop buddies, and finds out that the child whose disappearance got the public’s attention is called Keith Brown. He vanished about two weeks ago, while playing hide and seek with his friends. He went off to hide and was never seen again. Several other children have previously gone missing from the same area. The report doesn’t have dates or exact numbers, but they are all between six and eight years of age. As the police haven’t really canvassed the neighbourhood for potential witnesses, Tom and Zoë decide to do that themselves. Their cover story is that Tom has a cousin of around the same age who went missing in a similar manner in another district, and he thinks that there may be a connection. They run off some “Have you seen this child?” flyers to lend credence to their story. (Teresa doesn’t go with them, as she would stick out like a sore thumb.) As the two of them head out, Zoë pats Tom’s rear end and says: “Looks like it’s just you and me, Sweetcheeks.” He seems a little disconcerted by this. Teresa calls out after them: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” to which Zoë retorts: “If what I’ve heard from Blink’s room is anything to go by, that ain’t much!” Teresa pretends she doesn’t hear that.

(As a matter of fact, her relationship with Blink has been pretty much on hold ever since she found herself with a permanent mental link to two other women, one of whom has unrequited romantic feelings for her. Getting it on under those conditions would have been uncomfortable at the very least. It’s bad enough knowing that they would be aware of her side of things. (She isn’t an exhibitionist.) Adding in the fact that it would hurt Annie and that Kate would undoubtedly make sarcastic remarks all the way means that her love-life has ground to a halt. Perhaps that might change now that the three of them have managed to put filters in place around their thoughts, but that remains to be seen. It isn’t really something she’s had much time to think about. Being hunted by the Reaper seems to be preoccupying her right now, for some reason.)

While Tom and Zoë are out knocking on doors, Teresa gets in touch with a social worker friend of hers who works in the area. Her friend -- Kathleen Jones; a flame-haired Irish-American woman in her forties -- is happy to share what she knows about the missing children in return for Teresa buying her lunch. She says that ten children have gone missing over the past few months, and gives Teresa a list of names. A little girl called Jenny Lincoln told her that one of them -- a boy called Davvy McCurlow -- ran off into the one of the long-disused sewers exposed by subsidence, calling out excitedly that he was going to see “the Fantastic Mr Fox”. Jenny thought that she saw something move in the shadows, but she didn’t follow. That was the last time she saw him. This was near an empty and condemned apartment block that the children use as an adventure playground -- they call it “the Fortress”. Kathleen notes that the children are all talking about the Fantastic Mr Fox, and how he will take them away to a better place; to a magical land. She observes sadly that such stories are not uncommon in areas where poverty, neglect and abuse are rife. A group of parents went to search the sewers for the missing children. She spoke to one father, who told her of strange, unearthly lights and sounds. He said that the others lost their bottle and ran. (She thinks it likely that he did the same, but didn’t want to admit that to her.) He also told her that the sewers are a mess -- littered with broken rock and riddled with cracks and fissures -- which is why there haven’t been more expeditions to look for the children.

Meeting up again at Orpheus, the team share their findings. Tom and Zoë didn’t have much luck with their canvassing, as the residents of the neighbourhood seemed to be extremely distrustful of “outsiders”. They did get a good look at the area, though, and saw the holes into the disused sewer system beneath the building that the children call their fortress. There were no spooks above-ground that they saw, so the next obvious step is to investigate the sewers. Luckily, Zoë has had experience of spelunking, so has a fair idea of the kind of equipment they’ll need down there. Teresa gets hold of a (probably out of date) copy of the blueprints. They make several copies of these, which they seal in waterproof covers. There being no time like the present, they head out as soon as they have everything Zoë thinks they’ll need.

As Kathleen said, navigating the sewers is a dangerous business. The tunnels haven’t been maintained in a long time, so they’re in a fairly sorry state of repair. With only the light of their torches to see by, they have to take it fairly slowly so as not to trip over, or fall into one of the many cracks. After about half an hour or so of exploring -- making sure to mark their path with fluorescent paint -- they see a figure up ahead. It’s small, like a child, but that’s all they can really tell at this distance. Teresa and Zoë quickly conceal themselves in the shadows, but Tom walks towards it, calling out to what he thinks is one of the missing children, miraculously alive and unharmed. He hasn’t noticed the way the child’s mouth is just too wide, its skin too pale for anything living. The other two notice, but too late. They both start to tell Tom to back away, but he’s already stretching out his hand towards it. The boy -- the spectre -- looks at it for a moment, and then leaps at him. Its jaws gape open -- wide enough that it seems as if its head is going to split in two -- and then slam shut on Tom’s arm.

A heartbeat or so passes before the investigators remember that Tom isn’t in gauze form, and that the wickedly jagged shark-teeth have passed harmlessly through him. Snapping out of his paralysis, he scrambles backwards as the spectre continues to bite futilely at him. His foot clips the edge of some fallen brickwork, sending him sprawling backwards. He falls heavily against Teresa and they both take a tumble, ending up in a pool of some (thankfully) unidentified liquid. Zoë helps them to their feet, rolling her eyes at the pair of them (and ignoring the spectre). As they’ve found what they came here for, they decide to leave. The spectre follows them as far as the entrance -- taking the occasional bite at Tom -- and then retreats back into the darkness. (It’s something of a relief for all of them when it does so.)

Back at Orpheus -- after Tom and Teresa have cleaned off the sewer muck -- they briefly discuss whether it’s worth making another trip. After all, that spectre seemed to be a Lost Boy, and those tend to run in packs. It might, therefore, be worth seeing what kind of trouble they’re likely to draw if they start using enough energy to send out a pulse. On the other hand, Lost Boys are the weakest type of spectre, and they reckon that they could handle a bunch of them. Slightly more worrying is the fact that they could attract whatever’s been luring the children into the sewer, (assuming that’s what’s been happening). There is a slight chance, though, that it might be something that can interact with the material world. If that’s the case, going there in the flesh would make them vulnerable without giving them any means of defending themselves against it. And if they reconnoitre whilst in gauze form, they risk summoning the Reaper whenever one of the Lost Boys sees them. The discussion goes round in circles for a short while, but they decide to report the contact to Alex and see what he wants to do. (The thing that clinches it is the fact that the sooner they get this over with, the sooner they’re out from under Alex’s authority.)

They report the spectre sighting to Alex, who tells them to tank up and ship out. (He seems quite eager to have a go at the Reaper.) As they slip into cryosleep, they all experience the nightmares that tend to accompany such deaths. Tom dreams of the first time he killed a man. Teresa dreams herself in gauze form, and yet somehow chained. Manacles bite into her wrists, holding her upright as the Reaper slowly flays her skin from her body; inch by inch by inch. When she surfaces from the nightmare, she is greeted by Kate and Annie’s displeasure at being dragged into that unpleasant experience. But there is an undercurrent of something else beneath the annoyance, and even Kate’s barbed remarks are somewhat subdued. Apropos of nothing much, she says to Teresa: “I hate to tell you this, Kid, but that felt like a Forebode.” But, much though she wishes it otherwise, that’s something Teresa already knows.

The three investigators, plus the technician with his goggles, head out in one car. (Every time the car hits a bump, the goggles spark slightly and the technician curses, making adjustments.) One of Beta crucible’s projectors rides with them, Inhabiting the technician’s cellphone. The rest of them follow behind, in a people-carrier. As per the plan, Tom, Teresa, Zoë and the technician head into the sewer. It doesn’t take long for them to come across one of the Lost Boys. This isn’t the same one they encountered earlier, and they notice it before it sees them. However, rather than take advantage of the element of surprise, they decide that they should let it get a look at Teresa before taking it down. After all, if the Reaper doesn’t get the message they’ll have to do this all over again until he does. Teresa steps forward, calling out to the Lost Boy. Its head snaps round, and it stares at her with huge, hungry eyes. It leaps at her, lashing out with a barbed, whip-like tongue. She Wails, Tom fires up Witch’s Nimbus and hurls bolts of flame, and Zoë just kicks the ectoplasm out of it. The three of them disperse the spectre in short order, and then all that’s left to do is wait. And wait. And wait. The only light is the guttering flame of Tom’s witch fire, and they can hear things moving in the darkness beyond. Five minutes pass, then ten, and then it all starts to blur. The walls of the tunnels seem to close in around them, their world narrowing to that sole point of light. It must be half an hour or more since they killed the spectre, and still there is nothing but the whispers in the darkness. “Maybe we should move on,” Zoë starts to say, which, of course, is when it happens.

The bell tolls, and it tolls for them.

The echoes of the bell’s tolling have not yet stilled when the Reaper shimmers into existence before them. Time seems to stop for a moment as he stands there -- seven feet tall and robed in shadow -- an imposing figure even without the scythe he carries loosely in one hand. And then Zoë kicks him in the head.

The battle is joined. Teresa Wails, and like the last time it feels strange; as if she were drawing on some core of darkness deep within her soul. The darkness rises up within her and she instinctively sends it away, even as she continues to lash at the Reaper with her voice. Tom blazes with the flames of Witch’s Nimbus, hurling bolts of fire at the Reaper. The Reaper swings his blade towards Zoë but she ducks beneath it, calling out “Wuss!” as she does so. At around this point, Beta crucible appear. One of them leaps out of the technician’s cellphone, while the others pop into existence by means of Storm Wending. (The technician is currently cursing at his Kirlian goggles, which seem to have flickered out. Small sparks fly as he tries the engineer’s trick of smacking the life back into it.) Small forms start to swarm into view, coming out of the walls, up through the floor, down through the ceiling. Lost Boys are everywhere, biting and clawing; attacking with all the natural (or unnatural) weaponry at their disposal. They launch themselves at everyone except the Reaper and Teresa.

While individually fairly weak, the Lost Boys have the weight of numbers on their side. The projectors have to deal with them before they can focus their attentions on the Reaper, or they’ll end up being swamped. Zoë drop-kicks one away, but it scrambles back towards her. Alex rips one of his into pieces and hurls another across the room. It leaps at him again, but he nimbly evades it. A Lost Boy shoots barbed quills at Tom: instead of attempting to dodge out of the way he moves forwards, through the blast, so he can get his hands on it. The quills shred his gauze a little, but he pulls himself together and starts dispersing the spectre. Teresa continues to Wail, jagged shards spilling from her mouth and cutting into the Reaper’s gauze (although nowhere near as much as she would have expected, or perhaps hoped). Holding one arm up before him like a shield, he starts to head slowly towards her, moving as if through a stiff wind.

As the projectors get the upper hand in their struggle with the Lost Boys, a storm starts to rise. It feels like the one that grew up around Chains following the implosion of the thing in the basement. There isn’t really any time for analysis, however, because the world shatters and another Reaper steps through, just behind Teresa. She whirls around just in time to see barbed chains erupt from the darkness behind it and lash out towards her. Although she tries to move out of reach, she is too slow: they wrap tightly around her, pinning her arms to her sides. One of them narrowly misses her face.

Having dealt with the Lost Boys that were attacking him, Alex uses Congeal to form one arm into a sword, and turns his attention to the Reaper that has snared Teresa. The Reaper swings his scythe so fast that the blade seems to blur, but Alex manages to side-step the attack and cut at the Reaper. Some of his blows land, and some don’t, but he certainly seems to have the Reaper’s attention. The one next to Teresa, anyway. The other one abruptly vanishes, only to reappear next to Zoë. The daredevil is grinning maniacally as she swings a Lost Boy around by one ankle. The spectre’s body is hurled into the far wall, leaving its foot behind in her hand. Both pieces evaporate into nothingness. Sensing something behind her she starts to turn, but it launches itself at her. It shifts its appearance as it moves, so now there are two Zoës fighting it out.

Once more, chains shoot out towards Teresa, aiming for her face. Alex’ attacks pull the Reaper off balance, however, and they miss a second time. She Wails at the Reaper, shredding its gauze a little. He still seems to see Alex as the bigger threat, however -- or simply has something other than killing her in mind -- and the scythe slices through the air towards him. It’s too fast, moving so swiftly that the blade becomes a streak of light; slicing through Alex, cutting him in two, leaving a swathe of nothing behind it. It’s as if Alex’s gauze simply evaporates away from the killing edge. He screams in agony, somehow managing to pull himself back together again and go back for another go.

Two of the Beta crucible projectors suddenly lose their heads. They don’t give in to panic: their heads simply fall off, one after the other. Their bodies fall to the floor and then, along with their somewhat surprised-looking heads, vanish from sight. There is no visible cause of their sudden decapitation, so the projectors simply continue to fight. Tom finishes off his attacker and moves to attack the Reaper. In fact, pretty much all of the Lost Boys have now been dispersed, so Beta crucible are now free to concentrate on the other threats. A couple of them look like they are going to try to take down the one fighting Zoë, but are stymied by the fact that they can’t tell which is which. They turn their attention, therefore, towards the Reaper.

A wave of icy cold floods over the sewer, crystallising everything it touches. The water freezes instantly. The projectors’ gauze cracks, pieces falling off and dispersing before they hit the ground. Some of them -- most notably Alex, who has borne the brunt of the Reaper’s attacks -- keep their ghostly flesh together only by sheer force of will. Only the Reaper is untouched; even the one fighting Zoë -- whichever one of them that is -- starts to freeze and crack. Alex being who he is, he immediately moves onto the offensive, launching a flurry of blows at the Reaper. This seems to catch him a little off guard -- presumably he was expecting everyone to be disoriented at the very least -- but he recovers quickly, swinging his scythe first at Alex, and then at Tom. They both skip back out of the way. Alex immediately moves back in, keeping up his furious attack. He can’t survive another blow from the scythe, so it’s all or nothing: he has to take the Reaper down.

The Reaper… apparently isn’t invulnerable after all. His gauze starts to fray and tear, ragged ribbons of ghost-stuff streaming away from him as he starts to come apart before the cold fury of Alex’s attack. Strange as it seems, the Reaper is actually losing. He clearly realises this, for he starts to retreat, fading into the darkness behind him. The chains around Teresa start to tighten, dragging her with him. The two of them start to disappear from view… and then Alex lands the killing blow. The Reaper disperses, the chains unravelling and then evaporating off into nothingness. It’s over; they’ve won: the Reaper is gone.

Everyone just stands there for a moment or two, looking at each other. Everyone except the Zoës, that is. They fight it out for a short while longer, one of them demonstrating clear superiority in the arena of dirty fighting. She trips the other one and slams her into the ground, then kicks her repeatedly. The one on the floor tries to get up a couple of times, but then apparently just gives up on this fight, disappearing before their eyes. (She doesn’t seem to disperse, just to vanish.) The Zoë that remains gives a satisfied nod and announces: “That showed the bitch.” It seems likely that this is ‘their’ Zoë. Or perhaps it’s just that no one wants to argue with her. A couple of Beta crucible belatedly cheer the Reaper’s demise, which starts a general wave of congratulations. Even so, the atmosphere is more subdued than triumphant.

Alex orders everyone back to the surface, as quickly as they can. For the spooks, this generally means going straight up through the ceiling. Teresa makes her voice audible to the technician, so she can tell him that they’re all heading out. (He spent most of the fight cursing and smacking his Kirlian goggles. From the sounds of it, they cut out just after the Reaper showed up.) Not being a spook, he has to take the long way around. As a group, the projectors reach the sewer entrance. The cars are parked just outside. As a rule, spooks don’t have much of a sense of smell while out of body. That’s why they don’t notice anything amiss until they get within sight of the cars. Both vehicles are wrecked; doors wrenched off, windows smashed and even dents in the bodywork that seem to bear the imprints of fists. A single word has been scrawled across the hood of Beta-crucible’s people-carrier, written in blood. That word is: Hyde1. The name stops the projectors dead in their tracks. There isn’t one of them who doesn’t know it, and what it means. Hyde has been here; might still be here. One doesn’t need Forebode to have a bad feeling about this one…

Alex, naturally, is the first of them to move, striding forward to get a closer look. The rest of them follow along behind him, Beta crucible automatically moving into tactical positions. They know this isn’t going to be pretty, even before they see the severed heads. (One is mounted on each aerial, looking like some kind of grotesque trophy.) As per their expectations, the scene within the vehicles is one of absolute carnage. Each car had a driver, and the people-carrier also contained two skimmers (in the flesh), with a babysitter to watch over their bodies. Now they just contain so many body parts, and a lot of blood. From a quick glance, looks like someone has cut them to pieces with a large, heavy blade (something like a chopper, perhaps, or an axe). Spent casings are scattered in and around the people-carrier, and the babysitter’s gun is on the ground near his hand. It looks like he fired at someone (or something) and, as there don’t seem to be any bullets embedded in the walls, he may well have hit them. The two decapitated bodies belong to the projectors, which would explain why the heads of their gauze forms abruptly fell off down in the sewer. Although their faces have been too badly mutilated to recognise, the ghosts forming over their corpses show the other spooks who they are. (Neither the driver nor the babysitter leave ghosts.) It takes a minute or two for the ghosts to form completely, and it takes a minute or two longer for them to realise what has happened. They seem to take the news of their demise relatively well, considering. (The skimmers’ ghosts are faded and monochrome, like those of Craig Forrest and the former pigment users at Brook House.)

All in all, Beta crucible and the three Zeta crucible members spend about half an hour or so examining the scene and scouting the surroundings for any sign of Hyde (or anything else). Alex orders one of the Haunters to Inhabit one of the deceased’s mobile phones and call this in to Orpheus. It’s at about this point when Tom realises that the technician hasn’t reached the surface yet. He mentions this to Alex, who tells him to go and investigate. Teresa and Zoë go with him. It doesn’t take long for them to find the technician’s body. He bears the same kinds of wounds as the murder victims on the surface, suggesting that Hyde got him too. The goggles have been smashed to pieces. After waiting for a few minutes to see if a ghost forms -- it doesn’t -- they head back to the surface to find the police there. Apparently Orpheus called in the authorities. They report the technician’s death to Alex, who tells them that Orpheus has dispatched a driver to bring them in. They head to the pick-up point, and another people-carrier turns up in short order.

The mood becomes increasingly jubilant throughout the ride back, as Beta crucible recover their spirits sufficiently to crow about having taken down one of Orpheus’ biggest boogeymen. Teresa, Tom and, surprisingly, Alex are fairly subdued, but everyone else happily cheers their victory (even the deceased skimmers). Back at Orpheus, everyone who can goes back into their bodies, which are then defrosted. Teresa is discovered to have suffered a few minor haemorrhages -- the whites of her eyes are going to be reds for a few days -- but the doctors say it’s nothing to worry about. (Apparently, this isn’t uncommon among sleepers who push themselves too hard while out of their bodies. Such damage seems to heal better when the patient undergoes psychiatric counselling in conjunction with the appropriate medical treatment.) After the usual physical examinations and psychological counselling (Teresa makes sure she gives the ‘right’ answers; one of the benefits to being in the business), the spooks are free to go.

Everyone gets a $600 bonus for taking down the Reaper. (Apparently, Management aren’t overly concerned about the personnel losses.) With that goal achieved, this mission -- and the three Zeta crucible members’ secondment to Beta crucible -- is officially over. As this mission was Alex’ baby, there is no formal debriefing and they don’t have to submit a report. (He isn’t overly bothered about paperwork and ‘proper procedure’.) Tom, Teresa and Zoë are now on downtime. Zoë immediately suggests going out for a drink.

1 Hyde is the most infamous Jason2 of all, created during what’s become known as: ‘The Great Terrel & Squib Clusterfuck’, a botched operation of theirs that took place near Orpheus headquarters. Certain people -- notably Craig Forrest, unofficial head of spook security at Orpheus -- have expressed the opinion that the end result may not have been entirely accidental.

2 A Jason is a type of spectre that possesses a human body. The host gains immense strength, high resistance to damage and a regenerative ability, but is driven by the spectre’s psychotic urge to commit acts of extreme violence. This breed of spectre is named after the character in the ‘Friday the 13th’ films.